The community fighting the invisible threat of toxic coal ash, captured by Will Warasila

The photographer travelled to Belews Creek in North Carolina to depict the ways in which polluting industries were damaging small towns in southern America. The resulting book is lyrical and subtly unnerving.

21 February 2023

Will Warasila’s Quicker than Coal Ash is a photobook of many layers. At first glance, it could simply appear as a documentation of a small town in Southern America, the numerous places and faces that make up its small community. However, take a deeper look and things start to look a little off.

In the distance of a seemingly idyllic summer lake-side scene, billows of smoke are just visible, while invigorated, desperate religious ceremonies reoccur more than once. This is because the photographs are taken in Belews Creek, a small town in North Carolina fighting against the environmental degradation of its local steam station. Run by Duke Energy, the station is thought to have caused 12 million tons of toxic coal ash to be stored in a local, unlined pond, catastrophically damaging both the local natural environment and the health of its inhabitants.

The project arose after a culmination of events throughout Will’s photographic journey. During his time at School of Visual Arts, after surveying the Magnum roster, Will decided to move toward documentary photography, and he later worked with and assisted mentor Geordie Wood, before moving back south to create his own personal work. It was then after a “horrific” coal spill on the coast of Will’s homestate that he became interested in environmental damage of communities. After significant research speaking to connections he had made on his photographic journey, Will was soon directed to Belews Creek.

GalleryWill Warasila: Quicker than Coal Ash (Copyright @ Will Warasila, 2023)

The books title, Quicker than Coal Ash, has its origins in a sermon from a local preacher in Belews Creek, Leslie Bray Brewer. It was during a coal ash healing service (Will was invited a month after his first trip to the area) in which Leslie asked attendees to “forgive Duke Energy for the harm and high cancer rates they brought to the community, and to fight them righteously to clean up their mess”, Will says. While not religious, Will recalls this sermon having a “huge impact” on him. It pushed him to grapple with questions that would later inform core elements of the project, like “How does one forgive such sickening actions of a corporation? What does it mean to live next to a power plant? What does it mean to be betrayed by the land you live on? How could I photograph this town, community, landscape ethically?”

As well as driving around the town, going to the steam station, going to dirt track races and attending workshops hosted by the non-profit organisation The Lilies Project, Will continued to spend a significant amount of time with the pastor, her family and church congregation. In fact, one of the images from the book that still resonates with Will was taken inside her family home. After lunch, they found one of her sons, Malachi, with his head to the staircase, where he heard a river running below. In the image Leslie’s son, Malachi, lies with his ear pressed to the staircase, the bottom half of his face obstructed by his hand, which puts a finger to block his other ear, a faraway look in his eyes.

After searching for a broken pipe or running water, to their avail, they found nothing. Will continues to explain that Malachi would then return to this spot frequently, and began hearing faint voices coming from the ‘river’. He claimed that this river was the river of Christ and that it was speaking to him. Ever since then, Leslie goes to this spot every day to pray for the safety and health of the town.”

Reflecting on the project as a whole, one of the many things Will gained from the experience was an understanding of just how steadfast and resilient communities can be. “Often, people write off rural America as being one sided,” Wills identifies. “That’s not what I found in Walnut Cove. Differences in politics, race and religion were set aside for one common goal.” Now, Will hopes the book will give the people who encounter it a similar realisation, and a greater appreciation for where they live – pushing them to question where their energy comes from, how they may organise their local community and how they can fight the many injustices caused by polluting industries.

GalleryWill Warasila: Quicker than Coal Ash (Copyright @ Will Warasila, 2023)

Hero Header

Will Warasila: Quicker than Coal Ash (Copyright @ Will Warasila, 2023)

Share Article

About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.